Strong pitching staff expected to be core of improved Muskrats this season

LACONIA — I'm excited," said Noah Crane, general manager of Laconia Muskrats. "This is by far the best roster we've put on the field, especially the pitching staff. All our players start for their college teams, which gives us a lot depth."

After a 2013 season marked by recurrent rain that dampened attendance and numerous injuries that hampered performance, Crane is looking forward to Friday, June 6 when the Muskrats open their fifth season in the New England Collegiate Baseball League by hosting the Vermont Mountaineers at Robbie Mills Field. "Last year every team in the league was challenged by bad weather," he said, adding that he was "encouraged" that paid attendance at home games shrank only by 600.

Last year, following a promising start that kept the Muskrats in contention in the Eastern Division through the All-Star break, injuries idled two-thirds of the starting pitchers, most of the middle infielders and several members of the bullpen crew. The Muskrats lost eight of their last 10 games to finish three games below .500, missing the playoffs for the first time.

Crane believes that he has assembled the players who will return the Muskrats to the postseason. Among the pitchers, Jordan Sheffield, a righthander completing his freshman year at Vanderbilt, where his coach Tim Corbin described his arm strength and overall pitching tools as "not common for a young man." He was was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the 13th round after earning All-America honors as a high school senior. Adam Frank, a junior from Dartmouth, who has won eight of 10 decisions and held opponents to a batting average below .250 in his first two seasons, was drafted by the Oakland Athletics as a high school senior. Adam Grantham, a sophomore righthander from Arkansas State, was drafted by the Atlanta Braves after an impressive high school career.

The pitcher sure to draw thew most attention is Mariano Rivera, Jr., a sophomore righthander from Iona College. Crane said that while he has yet to post numbers matching his father, he has good velocity and "lots of room to grow." Cory Geisler of Texas State, a southpaw has won three games this year without a loss while pitching to an earned run average of 1.78 and holding hitters to a batting average of .200. As an outfielder he is the team's second leading hitter with average of .307.

"We're very strong at the corners," Crane said. At third base, Braxton Martinez enjoyed one of the best freshman seasons ever at St. Louis University, hitting for an average of .314 with 76 hits in 62 games, and as a sophomore is among the team leaders in hits, average and runs batten in. Ben Miller, a freshman at Nebraska, was recruited as a left-handed pitcher, but found himself at first base and leading the team in hitting with an average of .362.

D.J. Rulhman, a junior shortstop from Seton Hall, is batting .371 and slugging .457 to lead his team while making just five errors in 42 games. Crane said that Cornelius Copeland of St. Petersburg College, brings range and speed to the middle infield, while his teammate Cory Baptist, who at six feet, four inches and 220 pounds, can pitch as well as play first base and the outfield, is "a big time hitter."

"We have a lot of talent, along with versatility and depth," Crane said. "Now we're hoping for good weather."

Crane said that this season the scheduling format has changed so that each of the six teams in the North division will play each other six times, three at home and three away, while playing a home and away series of two games against each of the six teams in the South division. Apart from Laconia, the North division consists of the Keene Swamp Bats, Vermont Mountaineers, Sanford Mainers, Holyoke Blue Sox and North Adams Steeple Cats. Crane said that the would reduce travel times and costs while enhancing divisional rivalries.

Crane said that plans to complete the terrace atop and behind the green monster ran afoul of the severe, prolonged winter weather. He explained that a crew of students from the Huot Technical Center had been enlisted to complete the project, but lingering winter weather delayed the start of the work until there was not enough time remaining in the school year to finish it. The project was started before the 2012 season and has never been finished.

The 30 players, manager and two coaches will be arriving around the beginning of June. Crane said that although while homes for 25 have been arranged, another eight remain to be found. He urged anyone willing to provide an aspiring big league ballplayer with a bed and breakfast during the season to contact him directly by e-mail, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or visit the team website, www.laconia